“You and your companies, we know this is not your intention, but your hands are stained with blood. “They are making a product that is killing people.” The broadside launched by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham in his speech, to enthusiastic applause from the audience, was only a preview of the hostility that awaited the CEOs of the largest social networks during this Wednesday’s hearing at the Upper House of Congress on Exploitation. minors on the Internet and the need to implement legislation against predators on these platforms.
Sexual predators are one of the big problems children and teens face on social media. Others are the impossible standards of beauty and happiness; depression, psychological and eating disorders; the mechanisms of use and algorithms aimed at creating dependence, or cyberbullying, according to parents, specialized organizations and the legislator, who accuse companies of not doing enough to protect minors and of lining their pockets thanks to this lack of control.
Appearing at the Senate Judiciary Committee session were Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Meta, Facebook’s parent company; Linda Yaccarino, of X; Shou Zi Chew, from TikTok; Jason Citron from Discord and Evan Spiegel from Snap. Behind them, the most hostile public possible: the parents of children who were victims of online abuse and who ended up committing suicide due to the harassment they suffered on these platforms.
“These are families who have lost their children,” shouted Democratic Senator Jon Ossoff. “These are families across the country whose children have self-harmed, who have suffered from low self-esteem, who have been sold deadly pills over the Internet… The Internet is a dangerous place for children, and its platforms are dangerous places. for kids.”
“There is no tool to hold companies accountable. Instead, “survivors” and their advocates are forced to plead with corporations to put safety ahead of profits,” commission chairman Dick Durbin demanded in his opening remarks at the session. The Democratic parliamentarian cited data from the NGO National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which suggests that sexual blackmail known as “sextortion,” in which a predator tricks a minor into sending him explicit images, has exploded last year.
“This alarming growth in child sexual exploitation is driven by one thing: technological changes,” Durbin noted.
None of the people who appeared received white glove treatment. But the main rhetorical slaps went to Zuckerberg, head of Instagram, and Shou Zi Chew, who was asked for all kinds of explanations about the Chinese company and the influence that Beijing exercises, or could exercise, on its functioning.
One of the most dramatic moments of the hearing came immediately after senators played a video in which several children explained the trauma they experienced as victims of abuse and harassment on social media. Speaking to Zuckerberg, Republican Senator Josh Hawley asked him: “Would you like to apologize right now to the victims harmed by your product?” They’re here, live on television, do you want to apologize to them? The Facebook founder stood and turned to parents holding up photos of their deceased children.
“I’m sorry for everything you’ve been through. “No one should have to go through the things that their family has had to go through, and that’s why we are investing so much and continuing to undertake efforts across the sector to ensure that no one has to go through the things that their family had to go through . ” Zuckerberg said.
His remarks did not seem to calm the senators. Texan Ted Cruz criticized the fact that Instagram alerts for possible illicit sexual content contained a button allowing you to “view the content anyway”. “Mr. Zuckerberg, what were you thinking?” the lawmaker asked, visibly indignant.
The executive’s response: “The basic science behind this is that when people search for something that is problematic, it often helps not only block, but direct them to something that might be helpful to get them to help. ” To which Cruz responded that while it would be reasonable to include a button offering information about why this search might be problematic, “in what universe is there a link to ‘See results when even” ?” And again Zuckerberg: “well, because we could be wrong. »
For his part, Chew returned to the Capitol for the first time in ten months. In March last year, during his first appearance before Congress, he was subjected to a wave of criticism and questions about the damage that TikTok, one of the most popular apps in the United States, could cause to adolescent mental health. . This time it wasn’t much different.
“We have made careful product design decisions to make our app inhospitable to those who want to harm adolescents,” the Singaporean leader said. He said the company’s guidelines prohibit content that “puts teens at risk of exploitation or other harm, and we vigorously enforce these guidelines.”
TikTok, one of the most popular and also the most criticized applications in the United States, says it wants to invest nearly 2 billion dollars in the implementation of a plan to protect minors on its platform. According to Chew, this social network has 170 million users in the United States, twenty million more than was estimated ten months ago.
In 2009, barely half of American adults used a smartphone. In 2012, half of adolescents were already on social networks. Today, 95% of adolescents use one of these digital platforms. And a third of boys between 13 and 17 admit to using them constantly. At the same time, the number of young people who admit to suffering from symptoms of depression has skyrocketed: 40% of high school students in the United States say they have felt so depressed that sadness has prevented them from continuing their studies or doing work. sport. activities for at least a year or at least two weeks, according to the latest edition of the biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey, prepared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Psychologists also speak of an increase in cases of eating disorders, or adolescents suffering from anxiety, and an escalation in the number of minors arriving at emergency rooms after having intentionally injured themselves.
So far, the US Congress is considering several bills aimed at increasing the protection of minors on social networks, although none has yet been adopted. Something that senators like Democrat Amy Klobuchar have attributed, at least in part, to pressure from big tech companies summoned to testify.
Klobuchar compared the lack of regulation in the sector to the rules that control other industries. “When a Boeing plane lost a door in mid-flight a few weeks ago, no one questioned the decision to ground the entire fleet of these planes… So why not take similar action with the same determination in the face of the danger posed by these platforms, when we know that there are children who are dying?” asked the senator. “It’s time to approve measures.”